“There’s something awfully sad about happiness, isn’t there?”
“What a funny thing to say!”
“It wasn’t meant to be funny.”
Noel Coward’s comedy Present Laughter sparkles with dry, off-kilter exchanges like this, a chamber play set in a middle-aging comic actor’s London studio where everyone seems in search of harmony, or at least some sort of refuge from the bedlam their pretensions provoke. Actors Ensemble of Berkeley is staging this gem at Live Oak Theater through Nov. 20.
Garry Essendine (Louis Schilling) is a popular—and very hammy—comic actor offstage and on. “Everyone adores me!”—“There’s hell to pay if they don’t.” He has a problem—he can’t say no to anyone, in particular the stagestruck young ladies who knock at his dressing-room door. And some—a green dingbat of a playwright (Dan Kurtz), for example—won’t take no for an answer. His coterie of housekeeper, valet, secretary, ex-wife and business partners (Kristen Sawyer, Christian Carpenter, Maureen Coyne, Melanie Curry, David Stein and Steve Schwatz) are genuinely attached to him, though they have no illusions: “Now you’ve gone too far—have you ever seen me overacting?”—“Frequently; in fact, you’re overacting right now”—and labor to save him from more than his own vanity.
Coward’s plays demand deft and rigorous pacing for the dry lines (“There’s a rather complicated letter about Boy Scouts. To hell with them! Send them some matches.”) and the implications of rather complex situations to play out fully. Formally, his plays are unique: a kind of comedy of manners poised on tiptoe that slouches into farce (at one farcical point, the words of the femme fatale, “She says she feels as though she’s in a French farce,” are conveyed adroitly over a phone with hand over mouthpiece). The dialogue gains its wit not from outrageousness, but from a perfect choice of words as in Restoration Comedy, a diction put together piece-by-piece like a parquet floor.
With a company assembled from a mix of amateurs and more experienced performers, Actors Ensemble paints the scene with broad strokes; they’re able to hit some of the high notes, but not quite glide through the shifting rhythms of the play. Louis Schilling presides over it all as Garry, though not always as buoyantly as the giddy balloon he’s seen as. Schilling’s operatic experience comes through; sometimes he’s more arch than necessary to play arch and overwrought Garry. He and Christian Carter as his man Fred act with energy throughout.
Maureen Coyne plays secretary Monica Reed with considerable aplomb, making very real and funny her near-hysteria when patience deserts her. Wendy Welch is effervescent and dizzy—opening the play in Garry’s pajamas, having “lost her latchkey”—which is to say a perfect Daphne, the “debutante” Monica descibes: “That type’s particularly idiotic, and the woods are full of ‘em.” Tanya Lazar-Lea as Joanna (”She’s a scalp hunter, that baby, if I ever saw one”) enters gorgeous, dressed for the kill (she too has lost her key), but can’t muster the decorum of a slightly hackneyed femme fatale. She calls Garry’s bluff, but is trumped by ex-wife Liz (Melanie Curry), who holds all the cards.
Director Stan Spenger thoughtfully notes in the program, attributing the notion to Melanie Curry, that Coward’s wartime play-without-a-war comes from his genius at fantasy—as a child actor, he played Peter Pan. At the end of the second act, Spenger puts the ensemble through their best, and most fancifully farcical scene, when Peggy De Coursey as Lady Saltburn appears at Garry’s door during much mayhem (“as if it hasn’t been like a wailing wall here all morning!”) to claim an audition for her dolled-up daughter. At that point, all the repetitions and asides come rebounding and Joanna’s parting shot comes all too true:
“In the circuses that I’m used to, it’s the ringmaster that cracks the whip, not the clown.”
Noel Coward was more than a little bit of both.
Present Laughter, Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at Live Oak Theater, Live Oak Park 1301 Shattuck Ave. 649-5999 or www.aeofberkeley.org $10 Fri-Sat (and Nov. 18) 8 p.m.; Nov 14, 2 p.m. through Nov. 20